Aging horses, Old horses require care
The shiny brown mare grazes happily in the green grass swishing her tail as she bats away a stray fly. Looking at the healthy mare, no one would guess she was nearing 25 years old. Thanks to good management, the mare could have a long life ahead of her.
As horses age, they may need a little extra care. All horses age differently, but by keeping a close eye on their health, problems can be addressed as they arise.
“Monitoring horses as they age is very important,” said Kathy Anderson, University of Nebraska Extension horse specialist. “Horse owners should monitor the horse’s weight and how it is getting along. I also encourage them to watch for any issues that come up and address them before they become major.”
As a horse ages, their nutritional needs change, said University of Wyoming Equine Specialist Amy McLean.
“If any older horse is starting to lose muscle tone and is beginning to drop in weight, additional sources of fat and fiber may need to be added to the diet,” McLean said. “Owners may also need to consider switching to a senior or complete feed and feeding the horse two or three times a day.”
She added, “The horse may also need a more simplified form of forage that has been processed and is easier to digest.”
Diet, dental care and a parasite control program are all important in maintaining the body condition of older horses.
“As a horse ages, it can develop metabolic issues or diseases like Cushings Syndrome,” Anderson said. “If the horse has been an easy keeper, the producer might want to limit its feed, so it doesn’t get real heavy and start developing a crusty neck and patchy fat or some sort of metabolic issue.”
“I would try to keep the horse at a body condition score of five to six, and adjust the feed up or down depending upon what the horse needs,” she recommended.
The body condition score is particularly important going into winter, McLean added.
“If the horse is at a body condition score of five, that is a good judgment of its previous nutritional history,” she explained. “If the horse is at a five in August, the owner can expect that to change during the winter. They may need to feed multiple small meals or add fat to the diet. It is also important to supply grass hay or forage and maybe consider feeding them smaller meals three to four times a day.”
“It is important to start before the weather gets cold and keep adjusting the diet so they don’t become obese. Plan ahead,” she said.
Sam Hales of J Lazy YL Performance Horses said, on his operation, being prepared is key.
“I think it is important to have an older horse in the right condition before winter comes. It is tough trying to improve their body condition when they are fighting the winter cold. It is a lot easier to maintain body condition, rather than trying to improve it,” he explained.
In his operation, they sometimes separate the older horses with similar nutritional requirements from the other horses.
“This way, we find we are not overfeeding one, while the other is getting the bare minimum,” he commented.
During the winter months, McLean said older horses need more body heat to stay warm and maintain themselves.
“Older horses tend to have more arthritis, so it may be harder for them to get up because the cold weather affects their joints,” she explained. “They can also slip easier on the ice. I am a fan of blanketing a horse if the right blanket is used, and it is done properly.”
McLean continued, “I also use a neck warmer. It is a good idea to even layer blankets on the horse on those days when the temperature is -40 degrees. Providing good shelter for the horse is also important.”
Sam Shoultz of KeSa Quarter Horses said he provides shelter for his older horses but doesn’t keep them stalled or locked in a barn.
“I think it is hard for them to be locked up and then let out. Going from cold to warm and warm to cold makes them more vulnerable to illness,” Shoultz said. “My horses are used to living on the open plains, so unless there is a serious issue, I think they get along fine that way.”
Even as a horse becomes older, exercise is still important, Anderson said.
“As they get older, owners may not be able to ride them as much, and they may not be able to do the same things they did when they were younger,” she explained. “It comes down to being very observant and paying attention to what a horse is trying to tell the producer. If something is making them sore, they will let their owner know.”
McLean said the coffin bone in some horses may change as they age.
“Owners may have to pay more attention to maintenance to keep them sound. A farrier may have to trim them differently or fit them with new shoes,” she said.
Anderson said owners may also need to provide more support by wrapping their horse’s legs.
“Owners have to realize some horses won’t be exactly as they were when they were 10 years younger,” she commented. “They just have to be observant to stay on top of any potential problems.”
Dental exams key in maintenance
Having a horse’s teeth checked at least once a year by a veterinarian is also important.
“At 15 years of age, the teeth can start to flatten,” University of Wyoming Equine Specialist Amy McLean said.
Teeth can become longer and develop angles, which make it more difficult for the horse to eat properly.
“If the owner can’t put weight on an older horse, the first thing I would have checked is their teeth,” University of Nebraska Extension Horse Specialist Kathy Anderson added. “It is important to keep their teeth in good working order.”
Both horse specialists recommend having a good working relationship with a veterinarian to address dental issues.
Signs of dental problems can include horses that drop in weight, slop their feed by dropping a lot of it and chewing with their head cocked off to one side which can indicate they are developing sores in their mouth.
“When owners put a bit in their mouth, the horse may also chomp at it, throw their head or act abnormal. If they show any signs that something is wrong, they need to be checked,” Anderson said.
A veterinarian can determine if the horse needs its teeth floated, if it has decay or a bad tooth that needs pulled.
“We can’t see clear in the back of the mouth where the molars are,” Anderson explained. “The veterinarian can use a light and move the tongue to one side to examine a horse’s teeth.”
Sam Shoultz of KeSa Quarter Horses said when he has an older horse that starts losing condition, the first thing he does is have a veterinarian come and examine its teeth.
“That usually solves about 80 to 90 percent of the problem,” he said. “As they get older, they develop more hooks, points and waves and can’t process their feed as well. Can you imagine how it must feel to have something like a pin poke you every time you chew?”
Depending upon what the veterinarian finds during the exam, Shoultz may also move the horse to what he calls the “granny pen.”
“We give those horses more specialized care,” he explained. “They are fed a pelleted feed they can’t sort, that is high in fat and specially formulated depending upon the hay we have on hand.”